Adams, Apparatus, Cantankerous Wisdom, Features

Cantankerous Wisdom: La Familia Fire Trucks

By Bill Adams

Commentators and pundits, including us older ones, regularly report what is happening in the fire apparatus industry. We make predictions on where the apparatus industry is headed and what new innovations and trends are expected in the future. A ways back, I made one that was flat out wrong. I opined that regional fire apparatus manufacturers would be regaining their popularity. They’re not, and in fact, they’ve been slowly disappearing. When investigating their demise, it became apparent that many no longer in business were family-owned. According to one cultural Web site, “La Familia” means “the family,” and to some people, family is a sacred institution. But, times are changing. Not all families today look like the ones portrayed in Norman Rockwell’s paintings. And, seldom can you walk into a fire truck factory and talk to someone whose moniker is on the building’s façade or the rig’s nameplate.

In western-central New York, it’s about 150 miles from Buffalo to Syracuse. Each metropolitan area was home to a regional apparatus manufacturer: Young Fire Apparatus and Sanford Fire Apparatus. About 20 miles south of Syracuse was Saulsbury Fire Apparatus. They were all family-owned businesses with namesakes being the owners or employed there right up until their closings. All three manufacturers had extremely loyal followings, and all were making headway in sales outside of their little corner of New York State. I don’t know how many rigs a manufacturer has to sell and how far away from home they are sold before it no longer considers itself a regional. It must be for pride or bragging rights.

Not too much is known about Sanford, which started in 1910, although I believe Sam Sanford was the last owner. Dick Young succeeded his father as owner of Young Fire Apparatus which started in the 1930s, and Dick’s son and I believe a brother also worked there. Saulsbury’s business was truly a family affair. Founded by Sam Saulsbury in the 1950s, Sam’s wife, two sons, son-in-law, and eventually grandkids either owned or worked in the business until it was sold.

I believe Sanford closed for financial reasons. Young experienced labor issues. And, Saulsbury was purchased by a large apparatus manufacturer that eventually closed the operation. Some old-timers believed it was a move to eliminate competition. 

Unknown whether it was intentional or not, many of Saulsbury’s dealerships were also family-run entities. Several had fathers and sons working together. There were Bill and Billy Shoemaker from the Buffalo area, Ralph and Richie Barden on Long Island, Dick and Rick Woodward from Maryland, as well as Bill and Brian Horrocks in Pennsylvania. I can’t remember if Bill Franz and his son Brian were selling rigs together back then in the Midwest but understand they are now. 

Continuing with Saulsbury’s family fire truck dealers, Chet Garrison and nephew Blake sold in the Albany area. There were the Inniss brothers in Canada. There are probably more, but I can’t recall them. A side note to New York family apparatus manufacturers is in New York’s Southern Tier about 90 miles south of Syracuse—the Elmira area—home at one time to both American LaFrance and Ward LaFrance. Interestingly Addison “Ward” LaFrance originally worked with both his father and uncle at American La France, soon becoming their competitor.

Family fire apparatus names may still be slipping into obscurity. Smeal, purchased by Spartan might just become a “model” of that manufacturer. The Kovatch name was shortened to KME and is now owned by REV. There are still a few apparatus manufacturers where you can talk to a namesake—namely Sutphen and Darley. Later, we may delve into family-owned businesses that don’t necessarily carry a family name, e.g. Summit and Alexis. 

Hopefully all the mergers, alignments and partnerships will make for a stronger fire apparatus industry albeit probably not so for the smaller regional manufacturers. This white hair isn’t sure selling “factory direct” or merely looking at a photo and preselected menu from a purchasing cooperative will make for a wiser and better educated purchaser. Some old-timers still believe there are advantages in dealing locally with a family business whether it be the manufacturer or the dealer. The fire department can purchase a product online from some large faceless entity or deal with a local “brick and mortar” business down on Main Street. Are the advantages and disadvantages real or perceived?

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.